ROME — When it comes to food Italians are some of the most opinionated people in the world.
When it comes to pizza, arguably Italy’s most popular culinary export, Italians tolerate and even enjoy a wide range of varieties and baking styles, but they all agree on one thing: The “real thing” is Neapolitan pizza.
Now the Italian Ministry of Agricultural Politics is proposing that Neapolitan pizza be protected by a law that regulates what goes into it and how it is made.
The draft for the law gets quite specific.
The pizza has to be round. It mustn’t be more than 13¾ inches in diameter. The crust has to be ¾ of an inch at the most, and the center has to be less than a tenth of an inch high!
Naturally the dough must be kneaded by hand. Rolling pins and dough machines are just not acceptable.
Meeting all these criteria and complying with the required types of salt, flour, yeast and tomatoes will grant the label “S.T.G.”, which means guaranteed traditional specialty.
Issue stems from EU
This attempt to regulate gastronomical products derives from some tense controversies in the European Union over whether typically national products can be called by the same name if they are manufactured in another country.
The biggest victory of this kind in recent years has been for producers of Parma ham, or prosciutto.
The raw, cured ham is a specialty of the northern Italian town of Parma. The consortium that represents the regional prosciutto firms argued that the English or German version should not be entitled to name their product “Parma ham.”
The European Union approved this request, making it a commercial violation in all 25 EU nations to label anything as Parma ham unless it actually comes from there.
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In the case of prosciutto, Parmesan cheese and some vintages of Italian wine, there are serious financial interests at stake, as the original product can often justify higher prices.
What's really at stake?
But with pizza that goal is hardly possible.
From the massive chains of Domino’s and Pizza Hut in America, to Spizzico here in Italy, from sliced to square and fresh to frozen, the definition of pizza has been stretched far more than the dough could ever be.
So what’s at stake now doesn’t seem to be a profit, but a principle.
In Naples that principle is alive and well, and the city's melding of these simple ingredients is exceptionally satisfying.
You really have to go there and eat it to understand the difference.
A word of advice for first-timers: Don’t ask for pepperoni because it’s an American creation that doesn’t exist over here.
If you do you’ll get a very strange look and a pizza covered with bell peppers.
Stephen Weeke is the NBC News Bureau Chief in Rome.